This is a complicated question with a lot of necessary nuances and caveats. Essentially, to answer this question we must first have a sufficient understanding of mental illnesses in general and a worldview that accurately reflects the truth of reality. So not difficult at all right?
This question is sure to rile a lot of people up. People have very passionate beliefs about this topic, usually stemming from great hurt caused by poor answers. In true academic fashion I am going to waffle a wee bit to set the stage before actually getting to the answer.
Answering this question in a healthy and truthful way is critical for mental health. The obvious way to show this is to talk about the consequences of misunderstanding the spiritual nature of mental illnesses. This misunderstanding tends to take one of two forms.
- Too much spirituality
The first is a distorted view that sees mental illnesses solely in the realm of spirituality. I have had people tell me that struggling with depression is a result of a spiritual deficiency – this is false. I have had people tell me that my mental illnesses are a result of demonic activity/possession – this is false (we’ll come to this later). For both these false statements, peoples’ poor understanding of mental illnesses and a distorted view of spirituality has led them to these painful lies. You can imagine the effect of these lies on someone who is struggling with depression and anxiety. They make you feel guilty for not being ‘spiritual’ enough. They make you feel inadequate because you are weak. Obviously, this is dangerous.
In other parts of the world this misunderstanding can manifest itself as seeing mental illness as demonic possession. At its worst, I have heard terrifying stories about people being chained up because they suffer from schizophrenia or psychosis, which was misinterpreted as demonic possession. This is literally life threatening. Mental illness is never equivalent to demonic possession. There may be similar symptoms, and demonic powers help cause of mental illnesses, but they are never equivalent.
2. Not enough spirituality
The second damaging misunderstanding is not seeing the role of the spiritual world in mental illnesses. Increasingly in the West (I actually only know about America and the UK) a more biological approach to mental illnesses is being taught. This is a limited, bit part approach to mental health and doesn’t line up with all of the evidence. However, even those following the biopsychosocial model fall tend to neglect the spiritual element of mental illness. The biopsychosocial model is a more holistic way to look at mental wellbeing, incorporating biological, psychological, and social factors. What is often missed using the model is the impact that the spiritual realm has on each of these facets. More on this later.
Whilst seeing medical professionals is key, and medicine and does play a crucial role in the healing process, it is not the whole battle. The result of this is that many people never engage with the issues that are key in the struggle for good mental health in the first place. Spirituality is crucial in dealing with mental illnesses. Not addressing this would be akin to turning up to a job interview only half dressed. I would never get any job I applied for if I turned up partially naked.
In my experience many people in the church are nervous to talk about the spirituality of depression and fall into the second misunderstanding. This is probably a reaction to the ignorance of option one, which also exists in the church. Both are damaging and not suitable.
To properly understand the nature of mental illnesses, we need to approach them with a healthy worldview. Both the ineffective approaches noted above stem from an inadequate worldview and understanding of how the spiritual and physical worlds combine. This is informed by various philosophies from the Greeks to the Medeivals which still permeate our beliefs and theology today. In today’s terms it tends to look like one of the following options:
- Deistic Chasm
This worldview is one of the most popular ones in the West. Whilst acknowledging the existence of a spiritual world if pushed, this approach tends to ignore its existence for practical life. This tends to be associated with inaccurate ideas of heaven as a place filled with harp playing angels chilling on clouds.
The danger of this worldview is that it ignores a large part of the struggle everyone goes through, the spiritual battles that we face in life. Mental illnesses are no exception. Again, this understanding of the world is like going to an interview half naked.
This worldview is different in theory to the one above as it denies the existence of the spiritual realm. This is more common in the West than other parts of the world (although still a minority). In practice it is the same as the Deistic Chasm and has the same problems of being only half dressed at an interview.
This worldview is fairly common among Christians. It acknowledges the existence of a spiritual realm and that we can influence it. However, probably because of the prevalence of the more deistic model, it has a severely reduced appreciation of the spiritual realm. Whilst being able to readily accept the existence of the spiritual part of life, it still minimises our nature of humans who are spiritual. The one common bridge between the spiritual and physical tends to be prayer.
This worldview, although slightly more accurate, still does not give due diligence to the essence of our identity as humans or our interactions with the world.
It should be noted that this is extremely easy to drift into as a Christian. I find myself doing it all the time. Worldview is not a static concept and we need to be constantly engaging with truth to ensure that we have are accurate in our understanding of reality.
This understanding of reality is crucial. We are critically both physical and spiritual. Both are important and necessary. We equal parts both, it is essential to our identity. Everything in life that we do is spiritual. Playing football is spiritual, doing homework is spiritual, going on a date is spiritual, breaking a leg is spiritual, and mental illnesses are spiritual. You cannot have one element without the other. They are not two separate parts of life, but two critical elements of the same reality.
I don’t mean any of this in a weird, new-agey way. This is a
worldview that is thousands of years old. We are made in the image of God,
important, valuable, loved, and not merely physical. Both 100% physical and
100% spiritual. They are different yet crucial parts, which are not in
conflict. Confusing? Yes.
Perhaps a useful analogy is to think of David Beckham (a generally useful tool regardless of the situation). He was both a Real Madrid player and an England player. Being a footballer for his club did not exclude him from being an international footballer. He was 100% a Real Madrid player and 100% an England player. No analogy is perfect, but hopefully that can set a useful frame.
Are mental illnesses spiritual?
Yes. They are 100% spiritual. This is not because mental illnesses have some unique spiritual property. This is not because mental illnesses are a result of a spiritual deficiency. This is because as humans we are spiritual. This is the same with all medical maladies. Breaking a leg is 100% spiritual, just as it is 100% physical. When someone breaks a leg there is interaction with spiritual forces. Whilst it might not be the cause of the broken leg (although it could be), it is an unavoidable part of having a broken leg.
Earlier I mentioned the biopsychosocial model of approaching mental health. It is a holistic approach which incorporates multiple facets of life. This approach is most accurate when seen as 100% spiritual. Every biological, psychological, and social aspect of our lives is in the domain of spirituality. This does not diminish the role that any of these aspects play in mental health. Rather it gives us a better appreciation and understanding of their purposes and mechanisms.
I want to reaffirm the need for a healthy understanding of reality when dealing with mental illnesses. In practice this means that we should appreciate things such as medicine and therapy better because they play a wider role in helping our mental health. A healthy worldview should encourage us to seek out professional medical help for our mental illnesses.
It could be easy to misunderstand what I am trying to communicate here. A healthy worldview, which sees our lives as 100% spiritual, in no way diminishes the physical aspects of our lives. They are not mutually exclusive in any sense.
What does this look like practically?
Does this mean that mental illnesses are caused by spiritual problems? Whilst I do believe that an evil spirit or curse from a witch doctor could cause a mental illness, I don’t think that this is usually the case. Most mental illnesses are caused by a combination of biological, social and psychological factors. However, this worldview helps us understand that the biological, social, and psychological factors are also spiritual. So, whilst the cause could be attributed to biological, social, or psychological factors, ignoring the spiritual element would only be seeing half the challenge (turning up to an interview half naked).
To properly understand mental illnesses, we should fully appreciate that they are spiritual. Whilst we need to be constantly seeking help from professionals and our community, we must have a healthy worldview.
This practical section will be the subject of the next post. So, if this has been confusing and doesn’t seem very practical, the next post should make things more concrete.
One of the biggest elements of this struggle is spiritual warfare.
This is a challenge for everyone in the world, whether we acknowledge it or
not. I will write about the spiritual warfare of mental health in a future
post. But for now, check out the words of St Paul from Ephesians 6:10-18 (NIV)
“Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power.Put on the full armour of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes.For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.
Therefore put on the full armour of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place,and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace.In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one.Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people.”